Photo by Jeremy Daniel

When Christina Wells steps onto the Hobby Center stage as Matron "Mama" Morton in the 25th Anniversary Tour of Chicago, she knows she's coming full circle.

Wells takes on the famed role in the highly anticipated Chicago run produced by Theatre Under the Stars, which runs January 31 through February 12 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

Houston — and national —audiences fell in love with her during her breakout, Season 13 of NBC's America's Got Talent.

"The city of Houston showed up for me," she tells CultureMap, explaining the hometown love she felt in her appearance on the talent show. "I feel such joy in returning here. You know, performing is a two-way street, and I feel like, we did it!"

Wells' gratitude for her home and her career runs deep. The H-Town native is a trained registered nurse, and didn't step into performing full time until after her stint on the hit show. By that point, she was in her 40s, with two grown children.

All the stars seemed to align, pointing her in a brand-new direction.

"I was always that nurse who would whip open the curtain on a patient before surgery and say, hey!" Her voice notches up, evoking an emcee warming up the crowd. "So, I always brought that kind of entertaining aspect to it."

Following the AGT appearance, she secured and agent and began the path to full-time acting. The single mother (her sons are now 27 and 21, and she has a toddler grandson) calls it her "second adulthood."

Chicago is her first national tour, and every day is adventure for Wells, being in a new city every week — sometimes multiple times a week — and learning who she is in this new phase of her life.

"It's just surreal," she says about having the tour stop in Houston. "I started in community theater and I looked up to TUTS. That was the goal."

A goal she met in 2021, with a dream role of Ursula the sea witch in Disney's The Little Mermaid. Now, she's back on the Hobby Center stage in another iconic role in an another iconic musical.

Matron "Mama" Morton is in charge of the women's ward of the Cook County Jail, where she oversees the musical's accused murderers, taking the occasional bribe in exchange for favors and preferential treatment Her big number, "When You're Good to Mama" is often a showstopper, sung by some of show business' biggest names. Think Patti LaBelle, Lilias White, Jennifer Holliday, and Queen Latifah.

That might nbe intimidating to some. Not to Wells.

"I try not to think of stepping into other people's shoes," she says. "I want to myself to this. I want to be authentic in it. [Mama's] a big woman, and she loves these girls. She protects them. But she's tough. She gets what she wants."

The musical, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, opened to mixed reviews on Broadway in 1975. But its 1996 revival fared better. That iteration of the show is still running on Broadway.

And the 2002 movie musical was a hit, starring Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and Latifah. It explores the idea of celebrity criminals and a corrupt justice system, blending those dark themes with some of Broadway's most instantly recognizable tunes such as "All That Jazz," "Razzle Dazzle," and "Nowadays."

Being part of the tour has taught Wells a lot, both about the business of performing and about her self. She prioritizes singing over everything else, she says. And she's tapped into her own desire for authenticity in her roles to amp up her acting. She credits the show's creative team, especially the show's director and assistant choreographer, in helping her to grow in her craft an confidence.

That confidence is something she wants to share.

"Opportunity and talent don't just belong to the young," she says. "Everyone has value."

That's the message she shares with others when she offers workshops and talks, where she not only offers her own journey as an example, but encourages others to tap into theirs.

"I'm a cheerleader," she explains. "I have one friend who teases me, 'Don't listen to her; she'll have you going back to college and leaving your terrible boyfriend.'" Wells laughs. "But I say, stand in my confidence for a little while. If I'm going to have a platform in this life, I'm going to tell you to believe in yourself."


Chicago runsJanuary 31 through February 12 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts (800 Bagby St.). For tickets, showtimes, and more information, visit TUTS online.

Christina Wells Chicago tour 25th anniversary

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Christina Wells plays "Mama" Morton in TUTS' Chicago.

Antioch Missionary Baptist Church Houston/Facebook

Houston's Historic Freedmen's Town gets $1 million boost to artfully relay its compelling story

In the footsteps of the past

In the shadows of downtown's skyscrapers, tucked between Buffalo Bayou and the bustling city core is Freedmen's Town. Immediately recognizable for its redbrick-accented streets and historic homes, the neighborhood was originally established in 1865 by more than 1,000 former enslaved people, who built it into a center for life, worship, and work.

Now, the enclave is getting a huge boost through a new initiative, Rebirth in Action: Telling the Story of Freedom. The $1 million initiative is a partnership between the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy (HFTC), the City of Houston, and artist Theaster Gates.

The multi-year project is designed to showcase Freedmen's Town as a monument to Black community, agency and heritage.The more than $1 million in funding comes from the Mellon Foundation and the NEA Our Town Grant.

In a city that's always making way for the new, sometimes it's easy for the past to get overlooked. Rebirth in Action aims to ensure that doesn't happen. The project will encompass infrastructure resiliency planning, artist activations through local artist residencies throughout the Freedmen’s Town area, and a large scale exhibition with Gates focused on the narratives of the longtime residents of the neighborhood.

Rebirth in Action is an example of how social innovation in Black communities develops out of precarity and how a museum can work hand-in-hand with community partners to engage in restorative justice and develop deeper community engagement through the lens of art, healing, and community investment,” said CAMH Deputy Director Seba R. Suber in a press release announcing the project.

This initiative will include a variety of stakeholders: Local artists and research fellows will have the chance to pitch their projects and works through an open call for proposals. CAMH's CAMHLAB artists-in-residence at Freedmen’s Town will be curated for projects that highlight, honor, and animate the histories and stories of Freedmen’s Town.

Each residency will culminate in a public presentation of a project within Freedmen’s Town. National artists like Theaster Gates will also have activations in the neighborhood, adding to its stories and legacies.

Gates' work considers the true power of Black spaces and invites audiences to see them as places of resilience, restitution, and redemption.

Freedmen's Town is Houston’s first Heritage District that includes seven sites recognized by UNESCO Routes of Enslaved Peoples project. One of Rebirth in Action's first priorities is to preserve the area's brick streets, laid by those early founders, and so elemental to the neighborhood's legacy.

A kickoff celebration for Rebirth in Action is scheduled for February 14 at 10 am. The public, artists, and others interested in learning more about - or becoming involved with — the project are encouraged to attend.

Rendering courtesy of CobbFendley

Houston art giant busts out massive new JFK sculpture near Bush Intercontinental Airport

ask not...

Where to start with all the David Adickes sculptures dotting Houston landscape? Perhaps his 44 gigantic heads paying homage to our U.S. presidents (still no Trump)? His giant cello downtown, a local landmark? His oft-photographed/Instagram fave We Love Houston sign? His 36-foot Beatles statues at 8th Wonder Brewery? Or the apropos Mount Rush Hour located at a notorious Houston bottleneck?

Indeed, the 95-year-old (yes, really) creator of iconic, white artworks (take his 67-foot, cement-and-steel statue of Sam Houston, which serves as a welcome off I-45 to his hometown of Huntsville) has become Houston's resident artist of giant works. Apropos, his latest pays tribute to a worldwide giant.

Adickes will soon install a giant, 5-ton bust of the late President John F. Kennedy, the nation's 35th president, on JFK Boulevard. Aside from a fitting nod and locale for the global figure who spent his final full day of life in Houston, the statue will also serve as a “welcome mat” to those visiting Houston and nearby George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the artist notes.

Carlos Silva David Adickes Carlos Silva and David Adickes pose with America's 35th president.Photo courtesy of East Aldine Management District

The JFK bust, which is hollow on the inside, is composed of two pieces; the head and shoulders are separate and will be welded together and then covered in plaster, according to Carlos Silva, chairman of the East Aldine Management District and its East Aldine Arts Coalition.

Heralding the famed speech given in1962 at Rice University, the statue memorializes the great declaration JFK made to a crowd of 30,000 at Rice Stadium — and to the world — marking his goals for the U.S. space program’s mission to land a man on the moon:

We choose to go to the moon, in this decade, and do other things — not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Silva hopes to see the statue lit at night as a beacon for all who drive by and fly over. An opening ceremony is in the works, upon completion of the statue.

There will soon be a ceremony to celebrate the official installation of the statue, which Silva said he hopes to see lighted at night for people who drive by.

Beloved locally, regionally, and nationally for his larger-than-life examinations of historical figures, Adickes has received decades-long acclaim for his visionary pieces. While some art critics shrug his works off as too pedestrian (perhaps a bit small-minded criticism for the big-thinking artist), fans across the globe have flocked to his giants. And just why do they love his statues so?

"History," Adickes told Rita Braver during a CBS Sunday Morning feature last July. "Why does anybody have statues of anything, you know? History."

Photo courtesy of Kehinde Wiley, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Sean Kelly, New York

7 vivid and eye-catching January art events no Houstonian should miss

best january art

While we await big spring art blockbusters, January eases us into a new year with a variety of contemporary offerings.

From a celebration of groundbreaking women through bronze, to a weaving of the art of natural systems and networks, there's plenty of great art to explore this month. Plus, look out for an artful way to help Winter Street artists.

“Woman, the Spirit of the Universe” at Holocaust Museum Houston (January 13-April 2)

With HMH’s superb Ruth Bader Ginsburg exhibition last spring still on our minds, we’re anticipating this show of collar sculpture from Houston artist Carolyn Marks.

Inspired by 23 American woman pioneers for equality, Marks creates hand-stitched cotton collars that are then cast in bronze. The collars represent American women throughout U.S. history, including Margaret Brent, who practiced de facto law in the late 1600s, to Texans Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan. And of course, there's Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a bronze representing her signature use of laced collars on her justice robes.

Also included in the show are two new collars, one to honor former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, and one for Houston’s first librarian Julia B. Ideson.

“Narrative Threads: Fiber Art Today” at Rice Moody Center for the Arts (January 13-May 13)

This Moody gives us a 21st-century perspective on this most ancient of art forms. The 21 Texas, national, and international artists in the show work with fiber and textile in ways that speak to contemporary issues of identity, gender, race, sexuality, and power, all through a medium with deep, multicultural roots that predate written history.

From tapestries to thread drawings to textile collages, these artists communicate both personal and political issues, through their works that can be read as simultaneously autobiographical and socially critical. The Moody has also commissioned a site-specific work by Orly Genger. Working with recycled fishing rope this large-scale outdoor installation will engage with the architecture of the Moody building and surrounding landscape.

Look for special events in conjunction with the show, including Honor, a performance art lecture from Houston-born artist Suzanne Bocanegra performed by acclaimed television and film actress Lili Taylor.

“Jacolby Satterwhite: We Are in Hell When We Hurt Each Other” at Blaffer Art Museum (January 20-March 12)

Created in 2020, this monumental video from Satterwhite translates the artist’s dance movements through digital bodysuits into animated Black fembot forms and other various creatures/humanoid elements.

Bringing together disparate practices of vogueing, 3D animation, and drawing, Satterwhite’s eye-popping digital meditation explores the movement of his own queer body while also evoking ballroom culture, popular culture, and sociopolitical tenets. For more than a decade, Jacolby Satterwhite has used 3D animation, sculpture, performance, painting, and photography to create fantastical, labyrinthine universes.

Exploring themes of public space, the body, ritual, and community, Satterwhite draws from an extensive set of references guided by queer theory, Modernist tropes, and video game languages to challenge conventions of Western art through a personal and political lens.

“Leslie Martinez: The Secrecy of Water” at Blaffer Art Museum (January 20-March 12)

This solo exhibition of Dallas-based Martinez’s work showcases paintings that explore ideas of place, climate, landscape, and personhood through the unconventional methods of applying and interlaying various materials, textures, and hues on canvas.

Born in the Rio Grande Valley of the South Texas-Mexico border, Martinez frequently traveled to and from Dallas. That journey and crossing through Customs and Border Patrol checkpoints caused Martinez to think on ideas of borderland spaces along with concepts on belonging and exclusion and how those relate to the structures of existence for queer and trans peoples, as well as ideas of shapeshifting and coding necessary for survival.

In Martinez’s work, viewers encounter poetic, abstracted meditations on the state of the world that are fused with fluid experiments in material, color, and gesture.

Art Fundraiser for Winter Street Studios at Silver Street Studios (January 21)

Houston art lovers and certainly community artists themselves are still in shock after the arson at Winter Street Studios last month. This fundraiser allows us to both show our support and to remind ourself of the power of art, and maybe even do some collecting.

Proceeds from the art sales will go to the Houston Arts Alliance Emergency Relief Fund which will provide stipends to the artists affected by the Winter Street Studio fire.

“Portrait of Courage: Gentileschi, Wiley, and the Story of Judith” at Museum of Fine Arts (January 25-April 16)

Two artists’ visions of the Old Testament story of Judith slaying Holofernes get juxtaposed in this intriguing exhibition at the MFAH.

Though separated by 400 years, 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi and contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley both find much inspiration from the ancient story. Placed together, they create a dialogue on visual storytelling that allows viewers to contemplate themes of power and preservation across cultures and time.

At a time when few women had the opportunity to work as artists, Gentileschi became a celebrated Baroque painter of 17th-century Italy. Known for monumental portraits of young Black men and women placed in historical poses, Wiley’s most recognized work Portrait of President Barack Obama was presented at the MFAH last year.

“I am thrilled to be able to share with our public Artemisia Gentileschi's magnificent and compelling masterpiece, along with Kehinde Wiley's brilliant reinterpretation of the legend of Judith and Holofernes. I look forward to seeing the reaction of our visitors to these two paintings treating the same subject, one by a woman, one by a man, separated by 400 years,” says MFAH director Gary Tinterow.

"Steve Tobin’s Intertwined: Exploring Nature’s Networks” as Houston Botanic Garden

The Botanic Gardens presents another exhibition of art onto itself that also invites visitors to explore the nature’s art of the gardens.

Featuring monumental sculptures by Tobin, who is world-renowned for his works in glass, bronze, ceramic, and steel, the show exhibition will include pieces from several series – including modernist Steelroots, unearthed Bronze Roots, stainless steel Clouds, and bronze and steel Nests with magical eggs.

Together, the pieces dramatically capture the unseen power of the natural world while celebrating the importance of the systems that give life to the Garden’s tropical, sub-tropical, and arid collections.

"SLAY: Artemisia Gentileschi & Kehinde Wiley"
Photo courtesy of Kehinde Wiley, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Sean Kelly, New York

Kehinde Wiley: "Judith and Holofernes," 2012, Oil on linen

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Houston's Alley Theatre presents new season of world premieres and old favorites

Curtain up

From a summer murder mystery to a world premiere musical, the Alley Theatre's 2023 - 2024 season brings an eclectic and diverse set of works to the stage.

“Our 2023-2024 is designed to welcome people to the theatre,” Alley Theatre artistic director Rob Melrose said in a statement. “There is something for everyone but if you see them all then you won’t risk missing the play that changes your life!"

Five world premieres sit alongside beloved classics like A Christmas Carol and works by Chekov and Christie.

The season begins with the Alley's popular Summer Chills production of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, adapted from her novel of the same name — voted the best crime novel ever by the British Crime Writers' Association. This new adaptation finds a group of extraordinary characters hiding myriad secrets that only detective mastermind Hercule Poirot can untangle. Alley resident company members Shawn Hamilton portrays the title character; David Sinaiko joins the resident company for this production playing Poirot. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd runs from July 21 through August 27.

Fall opens with American Mariachi, a story of family and following your dreams. The play takes place in the 1970s and finds Lucha and her cousin searching for bandmates to form a new mariachi ensemble, despite the fact that girls can't be mariachis. Or can they? The show runs September 22 to October 22.

Anton Chekov's Little Comedies is an Alley commission and world premiere. The show takes the writer's one-act comedies Swan Song, The Bear, The Proposal, The Wedding, and The Harmfulness of Tobacco and brings them to the stage in a new production directed by Tony Award-winning playwright and director Richard Nelson. Alley resident company members Tom Waite, Elizabeth Bunch, David Rainey, and Melissa Pritchett are among the cast. Little Comedies runs October 6 through 29.

The much-loved A Christmas Carol returns for the holidays, from November 16 through December 30, in a production adapted and directed by Melrose. David Rainey plays Ebenezer Scrooge.

Pictures from Home kicks off 2024. The play, based on the photo memoir of the same name by Larry Sultan, was part of the 2020 Alley All New Festival. It chronicles what happened when photographer Sultan turned his lens on his parents to explore the truth behind their home movies. Pictures from Home runs January 19 through February 11, 2024.

Larry Shue's comedy The Nerd runs February 23 through March 17, 2024. The action follows an up-and-coming architect who invites the hero who saved his life into his home. Turns out that hero is a total nerd who not only winds up outstaying his welcome but also entangles everyone around him in chaos. Resident company members Melissa Molano, Chris Hutchison, Shawn Hamilton, Melissa Pritchett,David Raniey, and Christopher Salazar bring the side-splitting comedy to life.

Up next in the season is the world premiere of The World is Not Silent, part of the 2022 Alley All New Festival. It's the story of a son and his estranged father attempting to reconnect in the face of the father's hearing loss. The show runs March 22 through April 14, 2024.

Elizabeth Williamson's adaption of Jane Eyre follows the titular heroine as she searches for fulfillment and freedom, rising above her orphan roots and struggling to stay true to herself. Melissa Molano plays Jane. The show runs April 12 to May 5.

Melrose directs The Emporium, a world premiere adapted from Thornton Wilder's unfinished script and completed by Kirk Lynn. It follows a young man, adopted by a farmer, who runs away to the city only to discover that life may be an elaborate job interview to determine if we qualify for our own existence. The show runs May 10 to June 2, 2024.

Closing the year is the world premiere of Ella, chronicling the life of the iconic Ella Fitzgerald. Written by Anna Deavere Smith and featuring music from the Great American Songbook, it charts the rise of the legendary singer who left an indelible mark upon genres from jazz to blues and beyond. Ella runs May 31 to June 23, 2024.

New grocery store's Houston debut leads top stories

this week's hot headlines

Editor's note: It's time to recap the top stories on CultureMap from this past week

1. New Houston-area grocery stores offer shoppers bulk restaurant food and supplies without a membership. Four locations are open now with two more coming soon.

2. Booming Houston 'burb named best place to buy a home and raise a family in America. The city earned high marks for its job market, housing availability, and more.

3. Brad Paisley joins George Strait and Selena with induction into RodeoHouston's prestigious Star Trail of Fame. This honor makes Paisley the 10th star honored with a gold plaque to commemorate his years of outstanding entertainment at the Rodeo.

4. Brad Paisley steals hearts — and a fan's phone — in his Star Trail of Fame RodeoHouston show. The performer brought the warmth from his plaque unveiling onto the stage in front of a sold out matinee crowd.

5. Houston's best burgers smash the game with exotic add-ons, beefed-up buns, and more. Presenting the nominees for Best Burger in the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards.

Netflix series Waco: American Apocalypse debuts with newly unearthed footage

Documentary News

Netflix has a new series on the tragedy that took place in Waco three decades ago: Called Waco: American Apocalypse, it's a three-part series documenting the standoff between cult leader David Koresh and the federal government that ended in a fiery inferno, televised live, with 76 people dead.

The series debuts on March 22, to coincide with the 30-year anniversary of the event which took place from February 28 to April 19, 1993.

It's an oft-told tale and not the only new release to try and exploit the 30-year anniversary: Jeff Guinn, former books editor at the Fort Worth Star Telegram, just came out with a book in January, also described as definitive, called Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage.

Waco: American Apocalypse is directed by another Texan: Dallas native Tiller Russell (Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer), who obtained never-before-seen videotapes of FBI negotiations, as well as raw news footage and interviews with insiders.

Those insiders include one of David Koresh’s spiritual wives; the last child released from the compound alive; a sniper from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team; the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit Chief; journalists; and members of the ATF tactical team who watched colleagues die in the shootout against the heavily armed members of the religious sect.

The FBI videotaped inside the hostage negation room, thinking they'd be there maybe 24 hours, not 51 days.

"These are video cassettes that were sitting in somebody’s closet for 30 years, that show the mechanics of hostage negotiations in an intimate setting - not the hostage negotiation scenarios you see in films, but a team of people grinding, day in and day out, for 51 days," Russell says.

He also procured footage from Waco TV station KWTX, who had a reporter embedded in the initial gunfight.

While the standoff was broadcast live on TV at the time, much of it was out of camera range. The film uses 3D graphics to recreate the details of the compound.

Russell acknowledges that the tale of the cult leader who was also a pedophile, the debate over the right to bear arms, the constitutional limits of religious freedom, dredge up painful conversations that continue today.

"It cast a long shadow, pre-saging the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma, the shooting at Colombine, and a growing distrust of government, but I think it's important to reckon with our past so we don't repeat mistakes," he says.

"So much of what’s roiling in culture today can be traced to Waco, a story about God and guns in America with all these children at the center whose lives were determined by the adults around them," he says. "There was no playbook for what happened, everyone was out on a limb, and people made mistakes. But almost everybody was trying to do their very best."

"I think this is a story that's often recalled in politicized terms, with finger-pointing on who screwed up and how did we get here, but there's a profound humanity to it all," he says.

Watch the trailer below: